Unnecessary cost or type of insurance?

Unnecessary cost or type of insurance?

It is something we should have, but don’t know if it is really worth the cost. How important is it to protect against a potential backflow incident where cross connections exist? Peter McLennan explains.

The general public are in most cases, blissfully ignorant of the dangers involved in unprotected cross connections. That is why protection, like backflow, is mandated. It can arguably be compared to smoke detectors in homes, fire alarm systems in high rise buildings, compulsory third party insurance in your vehicle registration and monitoring systems in air-conditioning cooling towers. They all protect the innocent and assist in ensuring our lives are exposed to as little risk as possible.

In Australia we have AS/NZS 3500.1:2003 Plumbing and Drainage – Water Services. This Standard can be regarded as the insurance policy as it specifies ways to protect against cross connections. Add to this the additional training required by a registered plumber so that they can understand, test and maintain the mechanical backflow prevention device in line with the Standard, and you would think we have the best level of protection available.

But what happens over time? Mechanical devices change due to manufacturers striving to improve the performance of their products and give them a competitive edge in the market. Also, if you think about your own skills, while you use them regularly, you maintain a high level of competence. Don’t use them regularly and you become rusty and forget the finer details. Why shouldn’t this also apply to testing and maintaining backflow preventers? Queensland is the only State that requires the accredited ‘backflow plumber’ to update their skills and revalidate their licence every three years. This is a one day review of the Standards applicable to backflow prevention and allows the tradesperson to get some valuable hands on with the currently available devices.

We are seeing a very concerning trend across Australia whereby the training hours allotted to the attainment of the backflow tester accreditation has reduced in most States from 40 hours to 20 or 21 hours. This can be argued that the level of competence achieved in this reduced time is insufficient to fully train the plumber in understanding how and why they operate and to maintain and service/repair the many brands on the market.

The reasons I have been given as to why this has happened is that ‘industry’ was approached and asked if they needed 40 hours and the ‘industry’ felt it was too arduous to expect a trained professional plumber to allocate 40 hours for developing their skills.

My question to you is: are you comfortable with a tradesperson working on a mechanical device that is designed to protect the drinking water, and therefore human life, when the tradesperson has received only minimal training or worse still, has not updated their skills in the lifetime of their accreditation as a backflow plumber? I know I am not comfortable with this. For example, if the tradesperson attains their plumbing licence at the age of 23 or 24 and works until retirement at 65, that is a career of 40 plus years.

If you look to the USA where backflow prevention is widely mandated across virtually every State, their level of training begins with a 40 hour initial course with the test being provided by highly trained people outside the jurisdiction of the training facility. Then in most States, the tradesperson must re-sit a one day recertification course every five years before they are tested again. If the tradesperson fails the test, their accreditation is rescinded and they are not legally allowed to work on backflow preventers until they have re-done and passed the initial 40 hour course.

For an industry where the safety of human life is involved, I believe we need a national approach to the endorsement of the plumber licence. This could include greater time spent in the training of the tradesperson, revalidation of the licence endorsement every 3 to 5 years, and a CPD (continuing professional development) style program so that the tradesperson can stay relevant with changes in products and Standards.

We see similar requirements in the fire industry, in the Waste Water Process industry and in other professions like the CPA program for accountants.
A backflow preventer is designed to protect against a cross connection that could poison hundreds of people. If this isn’t enough reason to insist on mandating that skills are updated to stay in line with technological change, I don’t know what is.

Peter McLennan has been involved with Backflow Prevention in Australia since the late 1980s. He is the President of the Backflow Prevention Association of Australia Inc., and Secretary of the Backflow Prevention Association of Australia Inc. Queensland Chapter. Visit www.bpaa.org.au to find out more about how the Backflow Prevention Association of Australia Inc. can help you understand Cross Connection Control and Backflow Prevention. 

Backflow Prevention Association of Australia Inc.

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